Friday, December 03, 2004

City that Never Sleeps

I reached my jumping-off point for Hong Kong in Auckland on Thursday, two days before leaving New Zealand, the previous day having taken a diversion to Napier to meet a jazz contact of mine to talk what I call ‘boring old guys jazz talk’ (“No, take 13 was made on 21st January, not 22 January!”) and pick up some CD-Rs. While we had a great afternoon together, it didn’t really do justice to Napier, famous in New Zealand as the major casualty of their worst natural disaster, an earthquake followed by a fire which razed the town. And even more famous for the aftermath – the rebuilding of most of the town in Art Deco style, which makes it look nearly a perfectly preserved, but slightly odd period piece, a slice of architectural and social history in a South Pacific country thousands of miles away from the movement’s origins.

My friend met me at the airport and took me to the Mission winery for lunch – best gewürztraminer on the trip, and a lovely pinot gris – then on a brief tour of the town, which you can see some pictures from if you click here. We went into the amazing National Tobacco Company headquarters and we took a spin around some of the other buildings in the town. There is no doubt that Napier’s quite amazing and very well-preserved heritage was worth a guided tour, but with only enough time for a short stopover, it was something else that would have to wait until next time…

I left Napier the next morning for Auckland, the largest city in New Zealand and, with 1.3m people, about a third of its population. And what a third – it’s probably got the greatest diversity of ethnic groups of any city in New Zealand, a mecca for other Asians migrating to the country. When I first arrived in New Zealand, in Christchurch, in the South Island, I could believe that I had been mysteriously displaced through time and space to a provincial cathedral city in England; however, when you arrive in Auckland, there is no doubt that you are in Asia, in the South Pacific. Another thing that makes it different is that, as they colonised it first, the North Island has a greater Maori presence.

Auckland is built on an isthmus centred between the Tasman Sea and the South Pacific, from which it sprawls into suburbs and envelops other hamlets and towns. It’s been built on over 40 dormant volcanoes in the area, some of them now islands in the picturesque harbour, which is well populated with boats and ships, trendy cafes and restaurants. Houses and apartments huddle next to the waterfront, towering over each other to compete for their glimpse of the harbour setting. In so many ways, it resembles Sydney, so much so that you can walk down a street in Auckland and swear that you’ve somehow stumbled into a part of Sydney…

I booked a tour for the next morning, which began with gales and rain, initially piffling drizzle, then a real shower that settled in for most of the day. Our guide correctly identified me as the problem – “must be you, we had three weeks of summery weather that ended last week!” – which has dogged both me, and everywhere I visit, since my 4 wet days in Sydney!!! So I didn’t see Auckland at its best, but from Mount Eden (another dormant volcano) it was easy to appreciate the spectacular natural setting of the city, and we explored its bays and seashores and waterfront. It hasn’t got a lot of older, preserved buildings, or older quarters, that I could see.

The guide confined most of his comments to two topics on the city: its property values and its sailing obsession, both connected to the extensive harbour and waterfront. It does have other attractions: the Auckland Museum, one of the best museums in the country, one where I spent the afternoon enjoying their extensive Maori exhibits, and attended a Maori performance. And, as with most cities in this part of the world, an extensive botanical garden.

I rounded off my visit to Auckland by visiting another, newer jazz friend for more B.O.G.J.T., and listening to the Tanner-Barwick Quintet at the London Bar in the Civic Tavern on Friday night. They were excellent, a rare trumpet/ fluegelhorn frontline, but fighting the raucous noise of a Friday night crowd who, for the most part, were talking over the music.

It’s now been nearly three weeks since arriving in New Zealand, six since coming from Delhi. My Delhi experience, so vivid at the time, now seems as if it was a long time ago. I am disappointed to be unable to spend more time in Australia and New Zealand, for I enjoyed visiting both of them. I also missed seeing a lot of places and sights, but got to visit the people that I wanted to see, and saw most of what I had planned to see, which was great.

As I went to the airport in New Zealand on Saturday for the flight to Hong Kong, I resolved to return, with greater knowledge of the country and its people, for a longer period of time, some time, some day…

On the other hand, Hong Kong is for me a return visit. Flicking through my passport, I realised that it was 5 years almost to the day that I had been in the city for the first time. That trip was one of my first since joining my former employer, a whirlwind week of interviews of my new colleagues and clients for my Marketing M.A. dissertation, meetings to progress our marketing in Asia, and socialising. I stayed at the Mandarin Oriental, one of the top hotels in Hong Kong, if not the globe. I flew business class there and back from the UK. And I got to see very little of the city, in reality, other than when the business finished on Friday before I returned on Saturday. However, it would be very different this time…

For one thing, the jet lag: the time difference with New Zealand was 4 hours, so we left Auckland at 10:30 and the 11 hour flight got us into Hong Kong at about 17:30. I took a cab in for the long drive to my nice hostel in Causeway Bay. Despite booking ahead, my room wasn’t ready, and I was decanted to a shabbier, grimier alternative a couple of streets and 4 floors away. Not the Mandarin Oriental, no doubt!!! I was so tired from the long flight that it didn’t matter.

I went for a walk around my surroundings – I had only been to Causeway Bay once on my previous trip and, although I knew that it was a shopping mecca, it was still amazing to see the streets flooded with people at 20:00 on Saturday evening in ‘Fashion Street’, shopping, eating, walking, chatting…consuming. I walked around a bit, marvelling at the energy and excitement, buzz and verve that even the most marketing-jaded Western consumer would be able to feel!!!

And, while you may think that I could escape Christmas while here, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, it dogged me all during the week – whether it was Santa’s Grotto and the Christmas displays in Central in Statue Square, or the nasally carols blaring from loudspeakers in Kowloon, there was no doubt that Hong Kong was going to be celebrating Christmas, after a fashion. After all, no holiday goes better with shopping than Christmas, and no city is more attuned to shopping and brands and marketing than Hong Kong!

I then headed to Central and tried to find some jazz to listen to, as this was the only Saturday I would be in the city. I found one place closed, a second one with a Thursday night gig night, and a third started at 10:30, or 2:30 a.m. Auckland time. When investigating the third, I got trapped in a lift with 5 gorgeous women cackling with laughter!!! I thought that a stuck lift was a bad omen, so I had some dinner, then went back to the fleabag (the fleas had moved out!), buying my breakfast on the way.

The next morning, hump bags back to hostel # 1, book into room for the week (cramped, cosy, tiny, small – but the price is right, and this is Hong Kong, where space is at a premium), and set off to explore the city. The rapid transit system in Hong Kong is highly efficient and whisked me to Central, where I visited the Tourist Office, picked up brochures and booked a tour of the New Territories. Then, as it was sunny and warm, I thought that the best thing to do was a very Hong Kong thing, both for natives and tourists: taking a tram to the Peak. There’s a long Sunday queue which moves quickly, and soon we’re at the front.

It’s not actually a tram (Hong Kong has a few of those as well), but a funicular, to the same end. It makes it way slowly and patiently to the top, seeming almost vertical at certain points (it gets to 1:2!), and yielding spectacular views en route – but don’t take any pictures, as the views are great at the top, and just as good a ways below the top. It’s a great way to orient yourself in the city, as you can see most of it laid out before you, and it’s a jolly nice view. The ramble that spirals below the summit, starting with Lugard Road, is pretty wonderful as well, and obviously a favourite Hong Kong Sunday activity, judging from the numbers of people coming up and down the path. Lugard Road was laid out early in the century, and isn’t a road as such, but a very wide path, paved and protected everywhere by dense forest, with a few odd lookouts. There were a number of sponsored workgroup walkers as well, all togged up in their branded t-shirts. The views of the harbour are superlative, but a tad smoggy – never mind, they are still wonderful, so I’ve included them in this week’s pictures.

The peak complex itself is forgettable, with a number of irrelevant attractions such as Madame Tussaud’s and Ripley’s Believe It or Not!, and the inevitably endless shops. Great swarms of people everywhere going from shops to attractions to peak views. However, the walk from the peak is the way to descend, a much nicer way to enjoy the views, covered by lush forest, tamed by man and concrete. Signboards give information on the unique species of plant and bird in the forest – and encourage birdwatching! In Hong Kong!!! Families are out in force, boy and girlfriends hand in hand, work colleagues on runs and walks. It’s a nice, relaxed scene. There are lots of other walks that spin off from Lugard Road as well, lots to see. Even a 55km. Hong Kong Trail!

Midway down the Peak you arrive at Conduit Road, in what is called Mid-Levels, which consists of high rises with great views, and realtors. The buildings soar 30/40/50 storeys into the air from narrow bases, clinging to the side of the mountain. Along a piece you discover the Mid-Levels Escalator, longest escalator complex in the world, going all the way back down to Central. I walked down the stairs alongside as it only goes down in the morning, up the rest of the time. Alongside the stairs at one point were a mosque, a catholic cathedral, and a synagogue – talk about a Hong Kong cultural stew, east-meets-west!

Encouraged by the walking, I got a Hong Kong Walks guide from the tourist office which I used the next day to walk around Central and see some of the old harbour areas, including the place where the British landed when they took control of the colony in perpetuity. There are lots of picturesque streets devoted to various vital necessities, such as Ginseng and Bird’s Nest Street, Herbal Medicine Street, and Dried Seafood Street, most of them lined with shops with the named goods on display. One definite sign that you are in Asia: bamboo scaffold everywhere. Apparently it’s just as rigid, but much more flexible (so better able to withstand the elements), than steel!

Tuesday, I went to the New Territories, on a tour called The Land Between as it’s the buffer between Hong Kong Island, Kowloon, and Mainland China. It’s rural and treed and I’ve never been there before. We started our tour at a temple complex dedicated to three major religions, Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism, the Yuen Yuen Institute. Spiral insense shaped like beehives hung from the ceiling and gave off wafts of perfume. Worshippers would come in and get their fortunes read by the fortune teller, who sat to one side, reading the Hong Kong equivalent of the Racing Times in his downtime.

The insense presumably had nothing to do with our somewhat smoggy view from the lookout at Tai Mo Shan Country Park – one of many parks in the New Territories that are very popular places for weekend visits. We then visited a couple of villages, Luk Keng, from where there had been a lot of emigration to the UK and Canada in the 1970s, and Sam Mun Tsai. Luk Keng is very near Sha Tau Kok, the boundary town with Mainland China. The border runs straight through the town, so that you can walk from the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region to Mainland China across a street!!! We finally ended our tour at Sam Mun Tsai, which has a big fishing population, most of whom breed fish in submerged cages underneath their boats.

Macau was on the agenda for Wednesday – it’s easy to get to (take your passport!), an hour’s ride from Hong Kong – and I had only the day there. I think that my picture gallery next week will have the Macau pictures as I had too many for this week – it seems quite different from Hong Kong because the Portuguese were there for much longer. It has some skyscrapers, but not so many and not with as much architectural interest. It does have a lot of building going on – they’ve been almost as greedy as Hong Kong about reclaiming land from the sea, and have even created an Outer Harbour complex with artificial lakes. There are, like Hong Kong, a number of islands that make up Macau, and there are bridges between them all. I didn’t get to the outlying islands, which are meant to have nice beaches and seafood restaurants with Macanese cuisine, but I did get to do a lot of walking around the main city. It has a lot of colonial architecture still around, and a lot of Portuguese touches, such as the blue and white tiles for street signs.

Yesterday, I ventured forth to Kowloon, and did another couple of walking tours, which included street markets (birds, flowers), temples, the waterfront on Victoria Harbour, and great views of Hong Kong Island opposite. I also went to the staggering Museum of Hong Kong History, which tells the story of Hong Kong on two floors, and was far too much for the afternoon. Exhausted by all this knowledge, I went to the Peninsula Hotel, a local landmark, to do a touristy thing and have afternoon tea, which was highly recommended by an experienced Hong Kong friend.

Refreshed and renewed, I took the Star Ferry back to Central, an experience in itself considering the amount of traffic in the harbour, and met a friend at The Landmark. Hong Kong has been the only place that I’ve gone so far where my former employer had a large office, so I’ve been able to meet with a few people over the week for lunch and dinner and coffee, which has made the time go very quickly. My friend suggests that we take the ferry to Lamma, one of the outlying islands in Hong Kong, for seafood that evening, a 45 minute jaunt which we while away by chatting and drinking San Miguel, and we then find a table for two on the waterfront, choose some grouper and lobster and prawns from the tanks for cooking, and watch dusk turn into night…


Blogger Crazy_Sister said...

Keep on "Talespinnin"

December 3, 2004 7:23 AM  

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